Imagine you need to jump online and check the bus schedule to get to an emergency doctor’s appointment. You turn the computer on — but it asks you to come back between 9 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday. Or, maybe there’s a message which informs you that the waiting time for Internet access is another hour.
Can you imagine? This is currently the real-life experience for many homeless Minnesotans.
According to a report released this month titled “Envisioning an Internet Center for Homeless Individuals”, there are 151 locations throughout the Twin Cities that offer free internet access, although most of these options are only available 9 am to 5pm Monday through Friday. Two notable exceptions are Minneapolis and St. Paul public libraries — but long waiting lines and restrictions often limit access there, too. For example, at St. Paul library, patrons are not allowed to use the computer for more than one hour each day. For people with limited computer experience, much of that time can easily be used in just logging in and navigating through a desired resource.
In response to these issues, a local coalition informally known as the Internet Café Working Group have come together from diverse organizations including: Open Access Connections, Voices for Change, Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing, Main Street Project, Trans Youth Support Network, and Alliance of the Streets. The team is working to create a community Internet space for people who are homeless, something unique for the Twin Cities in that it would: (1) be open during times other Internet services are not traditional available, (2) located near homeless shelters, and (3) be staffed my homeless and low income individuals.
Having digital literacy skills is important for averyone, but it is especially critical for individuals who are homeless; finding housing, searching for a job and accessing most resources is significantly easier with a basic computer skill level.
“What was difficult about not having [Internet] access was finding housing and jobs. I believe that its import to have someone pointing people to the right resource websites. But for resources websites to help there must be internet access in shelters,” notes a mother of two who was homeless a year ago, but is now in stable housing and taking college courses online.
Amongst the findings, 22% of homeless individuals in the Twin Cities do not know how to use a computer at all. When asked how they wanted to use the Internet, many said they were interest in searching for housing or employment, increasing their computer literacy, or just finding more about what options the Internet had to offer.
Research suggests that people learn basic digital literacy skills most effectively in low stress situations that emulate play — something that makes the time and content restrictions less effective than they could be.
“What motivates people who do not know how to use computers to get excited about learning how to use them is learning how to do fun things on the computer like sending an email or searching for a video on Youtube. Once someone starts to realize the potential of the web, they will get much more excited and motivated to learn computer skills than if they are trying to learn it last minute when trying to put together a resume for instance,” notes Rebecca Orrick, author of the Internet Café Working Group report.
The project is not without its challenges. Many of the goals are similar to the defunct X-Committee, a St. Paul project that was run by and for homeless individuals but proved unsustainable and inevitably closed. Learning from what is working, The Internet Café Working Group model is building on two recent success of Open Access Connections. Open Access Connections provides an outlet for individuals who are homeless to have a voice in the policy sphere through their Broadcast program. Similarly, Open Access Connections currently offers a netbook lending program, which provides many of the same services the Internet Café Working Group envisions. The Internet Café Working group also plans to go a step further by providing free Internet services.
Ed Petche, Open Access Connections Community Outreach Specialist, said, “We were particularly pleased that many people have liked the idea of constituents who are homeless or in transition being involved in the planning and guidelines for an Internet Café. Our netbook loan project [is] up and running and we are impressed with the motivation we are seeing in the groups we are working with.”
As practical tools and resources are increasingly found online, homeless Minnesotans without Internet access and basic digital literacy skills are at risk of becoming further removed from the prospects of stability and prosperity.